About six months ago, I introduced (or re-introduced) you all to the math rock of Japan in a companion piece celebrating the release of our first compilation Fecking Bahamas I. Japan. At the time of research, I grew increasingly surprised by the number of exciting bands per square kilometer for such a tiny sliver of land. Once again, I have arduously trawled the internet to bring an account of another entire nation’s math rock scene: Russia. Here, however, we are dealing with Japan’s opposite: in stark contrast to its gargantuan land mass, Russia’s math rock scene is tiny and still teething. Of course, having said this, the collective artistic capacity of the bands that represent this small scene is high, the endeavours are promising, and the music is more than worthy of your attention. Ladies and gentlemen, masters and margaritas, vecks and devotchkas, cultural references and cliches, let us quickly start our Russian travels now because, geographically speaking, we have a lot of mileage…
Russia’s history of instrumental sound is perhaps best reflected by soaring right back to the 19th century. The Russian classical music era was late blooming compared to European and Western movements, yet therein lay a handful of exciting composers who, incidentally, crafted physically demanding compositions of a highly complex nature. Anton Arensky penned highly dissonant and physically demanding pieces such as ‘Trio‘. The quintuple meter was commonly used by Russian composers, some notable examples include Tchaikovsky‘s limping waltz in ‘Pathetique Symphony’ and Arensky’s ‘Scherzo-finale’ from ‘Piano Concerto Op. 2’. Modest Mussorgsky‘s renowned ‘Pictures At An Exhibition‘ is played in 11/4. If one is looking for shifting mechanical complexity, it is hard to look past 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky, who took irregular meters and shifting time changes to a new echelon. ‘Rite Of Spring’ is Russia’s bastion of metric irregularity; the ‘Sacrificial Dance‘ movement alone bears a staggering 52 time signature changes. Consideration should be given to the fact that such elaborate and technical structures were not simply ostentatious performance; these new sounds evoked deep-rooted poetry that hitherto had been seldom explored. Stravinsky and other Russian composers took full control of the musical spectrum to conjure up new and ultimately beguiling stories.
The birth of what might be deemed Russian ‘math rock’ probably occurred in late 2006 with the emergence of Prea Hrada. Perhaps leaning more towards punk and post-rock territories, Prea Hrada experimented with a range of time signatures and shifting time changes, and generally revitalised the idea of using instruments to construct the narrative, rather than lyrics. Around the same time, the instrumental post rock group Белые Флаги Зажигайте Медленно (Light The White Flags Slowly) had formed in Moscow, and would become a major influence for later math rock bands like Riding The Diplodoc. “Riding The Diplodoc started in my hometown, Kurgan, which is far beyond the Ural Mountains in Siberia,” says guitarist Sasha Butakov, “initially, we wanted to do something with dance, fast and melodic. The musicians who participated in the project did not have much experience with playing instruments, except for our drummer, and later a second guitarist. So we started to try to play. We did not have a singer but we had accumulated enough material that we constantly rehearsed and tried to come up with riffs so they replaced the vocals, in the sense that the music should speak louder than words. The further we went with the creation of our music, the more we wanted our music to be a bit more complex. Russia’s only just started to appear the first post-rock bands and the scene began to replenish various experimental instrumental music. As if all tired of playing the same, we all began to experiment“. Riding The Diplodoc released Dilletante’s Like Lions, an album rich with angular guitar hooks, sustained grooves, encapsulating the guitar-based sound that was becoming increasingly popular due to innovative efforts by bands like And So I Watch You From Afar. “Thanks to last.fm I learned about Antarctic, Rooftops, American Football, Algernon Cadwallader and others. Plus there was the UK scene with bands like Tubelord, Blakfish, Colors, and Venice Ahoy. These groups definitely influenced each of us. Russian bands such as Белые Флаги Зажигайте Медленно and Fra Angeliko also had an influence on us.”
A Rifle Surprise – That Was The Stilt Dancer’s Laugh (2008)
A primordial ‘scene’ appeared to be developing around the late 2000’s, with the arrival of bands like A Rifle Surprise, Sauce De Soja, Luchande, Hatari!, |Juno| and Vespero (for a great mix of Russian math rock from this time, listen here). The problem was that networking was difficult; many of these developing bands were hardly within a stone’s throw of Moscow, where many of the earlier math rock bands were already established. Vespero, for example, were based in Astrakahn, about 1500 kilometres from Moscow. Riding The Diplodoc were in Kurgan, a cool 2050 kilometres from Moscow. ED are a four-piece based in Barnaul, about 3650 kilometres from Moscow. “Around 2007 metal was very popular here in Siberia“, says guitarist Maxim Sakovich, “we originally played metal but around 2011, our guitarist first heard a group called toe. Since then, we stopped playing metal and started playing more math rock style music with more complexities.” But it the problem with Russia is that it is a giant place. “No one plays math rock in Barnaul,” says Maxim, “there were groups that played post rock, Trees Die Standing and КСИ, but they’ve gone. It is a pity“. In Moscow, the scene remains quite active, and local math rock bands usually play Театръ (Teatr), Мастерская (Masterskaya), Powerhouse and Шоколадная Фабрика (Shokoladnaya Fabrika). Sadly, many of the venues close due to increasing rent prices, so it is often hard to follow whether such venues are active or not. International math rock bands such as And So I Watch You From Afar, Tera Melos, and TTNG played in larger venues such as Plan B, B2, and 16 Tons. However, these math rock acts must compete with a much larger post rock scene. “Post-rock is a major genre here,” says Weary Eyes bassist Nikita Martyushov, “we have sold-out shows from headliners like God Is An Astronaut, 65daysofstatic and Maybeshewill are regular. And we have our own stars, like I Am Waiting For You Last Summer“.
By the late 2000’s the UK and US math rock scenes were well established, and Russia was trailing behind. So why the stunted growth? It is probably a combination of two factors. Firstly, Russia simply didn’t have the connectivity that places like the densely populated United Kingdom had, where math rock nerds per square kilometre were certain to be a lot higher. Secondly, the permeability of underground music just wasn’t as robust as somewhere like the US, who facilitated the rock’n’roll movement, the punk movement, the no-wave movement and, of course, the math rock movement. Despite the US’s similar gigantic landmass, the porosity of underground culture allowed it to seep across borders easily. Russia had endured the quelling of its art and underground music by the Soviet Union, so its development would be slow and arduous. It simply did not have the scaffolding that other countries probably had.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to ensure the healthy growth of the Russian math rock scene going forward is how to promote it. Most shows and concerts happen in the winter, as many Russians take vacations during the summer. As a booking agent, Nikita finds it increasingly difficult to facilitate international tours for number of reasons. “The first major problem is the recent currency exchange situation. We made an offer for a famous metal band 6 months ago, but since then dollar raised 15%. So in the end, we didn’t manage to sell only 5 tickets to cover all the expenses, but the venue was almost full, meaning that the currency change had eaten all our profit. The second issue is that most of the well-known international bands, even in math-rock, already have agents, which means all the show-decisions are under their control. They don’t want to risk and work for a percent break, even if all of other expenses are covered (backline, traveling, catering, living, etc.) and even if there is still a minimum amount of fee guaranteed. The third issue is that agents generally suppose that Russia is some kind of magical country where people are desperate with music and are ready to pay twice more for the tickets than Europeans, so agents ask much more than they usually do. Most people actually earn twice less, than the average European music-lover. Then of course there are visa issues and transport costs.” The struggle, thus, is finding a financial agreement between international managers and booking agents, and local Russian promoters and venue holders, a negotiation already made tricky simply due to the niche nature of math rock. “Russia is a vast market, it’s not only Moscow, as it is for many bands now, but bands would manage to make a successful conquest of it only when their agents would be ready for a dialogue of a team-job with local promoters.”
Despite the absence of live shows, the Russian math rock community thrives online. The majority of networking occurs via the Russian social networking site VK (‘VKontakte’). For Russian music fans, the benefit of VK over other global social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is that VK allows its users to upload music to online players within their posts. Thus, the online Russian math rock community is able to share music directly within their normal social sharing site. For us international folk, VK groups provide a regularly updated source for international and local math rock music, which is viewable by both registered and unregistered users. Arguably the most popular VK groups, and therefore the most updated, are mathwall, 52mHz whale, mathcore_music and twinkle daddies.
The breadth of music provided online allows listeners to appreciate the commonalities associated with contemporary math rock music in Russia. While Russian math rock is very guitar-based and melody-rich, elaborate finger picking and tapping is generally not a common motif. Like Japan, much of the Russia’s math rock makes use of prolonged rhythms to set a groove; irregularities in rhythm typically appear in the form of shifting time changes and subtle polyrhythms, never reaching the extremities of bands like Hella or Don Caballero. The more sustained sound of many Russian bands gives them a more post rock character and the mathy textures tend to sift through unnoticed.
It may have been late blooming, but a small yet promising surge of passion for instrumental music has erupted, or re-erupted, in Russia. In a way, it is funny that while all the birds are making their way south towards warmer regions for breeding, the Russian winter opens up from a cultural perspective. As the climate drops, the underground music scene starts to grow and shows become more frequent. The continual challenge of math rock in Russia is establish more robust relationships between the local and international promoters and event organisers. As listeners and fans of math rock, perhaps it’s about high time we migrate north for the winter?